Tonglen (Sending and Taking) in the Sonic Sandbox

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Lojong or “mind training” there is a special form of meditation called Tonglen, which is a practice of thinking of sending and taking. On the outbreath, you imagine sending the things you want in the world out into the world. The things to think about add benefit to the world, so they probably include compassion, love, gentleness, getting what you need to live, and so on. On the inbreath, you take away the things in the world that you don’t want to be there; things like pain, pollution, isolation, unmet need and so on.

In the Sonic Sandbox, the basic improvisation exercise (also called toning) is a practical demonstration of the experience of dynamic (or interactive) sending and taking. We all take a breath together and initiate our own sound together. This sound is an expression of our feelings in the moment. It can be made either with or without intention or much thought. It really doesn’t matter what the sound is. All that really matters is that everyone contributes. Each person’s sound is a gift to the group, without which, music cannot happen.

I ask that people hold their sound for the length of one breath. I also ask that they listen to their sound in combination with all the other sounds, just letting them be, without needing to judge the sounds, instead noticing what happens when all the sounds coexist, and if they like, noticing interactions that interest them.

We do this two times for the length of one breath. Then, the third time, I ask people to keep making sounds, which means they have to continue to take breaths in order to be able to make sounds. I also ask them to start copying the sounds that interest them, and to move back and forth between making their own sound and copying the sounds that interest them. I ask them to do this on their own time, following their own impulse to either offer sound or copy sound. We need make no attempt to consciously or deliberately try to coordinate ourselves. If we just follow our impulses, that coordination seems to start to happening without effort.

Making sounds is sending. Copying is sending. When we breathe in, we are taking — offering a cessation of sound production (which also makes a small sound that can be heard if everyone is doing the same thing). The taking is the preparation for the sending. But the sending can be something primarily from our own impulse, or it can be something primarily taken from another’s impulse (copying).

The copying is often experienced as support by those who are copied. By switching between sound initiation and copying each of the others who make sounds, we can create a group where everyone feels like they are a part of the group and are being supported by everyone else. By doing so without a plan to do so, the support feels fortuitous, which is different that if we deliberately take turns copying everyone else, one after the other. However, whether we plan the support or it happens fortuitously, being a leader supported by other people’s copying often gives people confidence in their sounds and that makes them more willing to both lead and follow, solo and support, all of which add interesting changes when improvising music.

Meditation is typically practiced with a primary focus on one’s own experience, even if we are meditating in a room full of other meditators. When we add sound, we create another form of collective meditation, where we can observe the impact of our actions on others. We can observe all kinds of different ways of interacting with others.

In most social interactions, people take a lot of care to make sure they do not harm others with their behavior, and the Sonic Sandbox is no different. However, when making music from nothing, where we have no instructions about what kind of sounds we should make, people often crave instruction. We want to fit in. But how do we fit in when we don’t know what we are doing? How do we fit in when we have no prior agreement about how we are going to fit together?

Traditionally, most social groups have a history, and it is a settled issue of who will lead and who will follow. But in the Sonic Sandbox, we have no prior agreement — except that the facilitator will provide a signal (a breath) that indicates we are to start. Other than that, the facilitator is no different from any other member of the group. In a group where everyone is pretty much equal (other than the agreement about who will start the effort), we have to quickly solve the problem of leading and following, giving and taking, if we want to connect with others and build trust with them and create a sense of cohesion of the group.

Sonic Sandbox is a dynamic experiment in the solution of that problem that is based on the principle that everyone can lead and everyone can follow and be supportive and that all roles are equally important and that everyone is equally capable of filling any role at any time. All we need to do is figure out, for each moment, who is playing what role. The amazing thing is that if we all listen, and we all have faith that the process will be equally supportive for all of us, we quickly find ourselves making amazing sounds that can, indeed, be labeled as “music,” should we choose to do so. Of course, by that time, we’re having so much fun, it really doesn’t matter what label we apply to our efforts.

Once people learn that the process is trustworthy, it stops being necessary to agree that someone should play the role of the facilitator. All that is required is that we agree we get together for the purpose of sonic giving and taking. As soon as we get together, people are aware that the process depends on listening and copying, and so they start doing so, even without instruction or permission. It becomes the process of the group and people move into awareness of and implementation of actions consonant with these rules at the agreed on time and place.

The consequences of playing by these rules include fun, but aren’t limited to fun. Some of the consequences have an effect on the way we think. I can’t describe these changes at this point. I know they’re there, but I’m not exactly sure what they are. However, one impact this work has on me is that I feel a sense of connection to others that feels very close and is quite surprising compared to the way I feel most of the rest of the time.

The toning exercise seems to create invisible and satisfying bonds between people. These are not restrictive bonds, but welcome bonds. I think they are welcome because we know if they start to seem restrictive, we can easily introduce some new sound and that will quickly change what is going on. Others will copy and the music will change and it will always be a collective reflection of what is going on individually for each person. No one will ever be stifled and no one will ever be dominant for very long, and this is the closest we can get to collective self actuation.

I love this process and I love playing with people this way — and then, my mind often takes another step, and I wonder what it would be like if this way of interacting with others could be incorporated in other ways that humans organize themselves. What if these principles of dynamic leadership and supportership were applied in other kinds of organizations, such as community groups or corporations? Could these principles help organizations of people become more adept at reaching their goals? Could these principle ameliorate some of the more dehumanizing aspects of corporations and other organizations? Could they make relationships more satisfying in any group of people, no matter what its purpose — whether organizations of people who are blood relations or organization brought together around projects or for social purposes?

Let me know what you think. Let me know if you would like to try these techniques. At this point, I would be happy to go anywhere and work with any group to see how this form of play affects trust, connection, creativity, problem solving and cohesiveness within that group.

Sonic Sandbox topics I want to think and write about

There are a number of topics I want to write about related to Sonic Sandbox. Some of what I want to write about is about how Sonic Sandbox works. Some pieces will be about the theory behind the exercises/games I use. Some will cover my long terms plans. Some will lament (maybe even whinge) about my struggles in building Sonic Sandbox. Some will describe and reflect on my personal experiences. I’m using this post to provide an outline for topics I want to write about in the future within each of these subject headings. I will return to this post from time to time to update it as I think of new ideas or as I write some of the pieces, so I can add links.

How Sonic Sandbox works

  • The exercises
    • Meditation
    • Making sounds together without judging (toning)
    • Sustained sound with change through copying
    • Laughter “meditation”
    • Moving with our music
    • Sound mirroring
    • Sound infection
    • Name game
    • Drum circle
    • Call and response
    • Sound conversation
    • Life opera
  • Theoretical issues
    • What happens in our brains: the different ways we think
    • Characteristics of the sensate and conscious minds (feeling self and thinking self)
    • How sound creates connection
    • Consequences of connection
    • Authenticity or “speaking” from one’s feeling self
    • Eyes closed or open
    • The role of movement
    • Interaction types: group, dyad, solo
    • Rhythm, harmony, melody
    • How to teach listening
    • How to teach people to support each other
    • How to create safety
    • How the experience can be used in psychological recovery
    • How the experience can be used as a model for relationships in other areas of life
    • Supporting people to be safely transparent in as many aspects of life as possible — eliminating self-destructive shame/reducing the need for secrets/increasing tolerance for variation in human behavior
    • The survival value of cooperation, the need to appear to be someone others can cooperate with, and the consequences of diverging too far from your true self in order to appear to be someone others can cooperate with (homo-cooperability vs hetero-cooperability)
    • How Sonic Sandbox widens the range of hetero-cooperability through example and experience and how to create a wider range of hetero-cooperability in other aspects of life
  • Plans
    • Building a sustainable workshop
    • Expanding workshops to other areas
      • Using the workshop for team building in formal organizations
      • Teaching youngsters alternative ways to relate to each other
      • Giving music therapists additional tools
      • Rituals for community building
      • Aiding community problem solving
      • Personal growth
      • A mechanism useful for changing habits of thought and creating psychological wellness
    • The Sonic Sandbox Institute
    • Integration into life in many kinds of institutions and across cultures
  • Struggles
    • Marketing, oh marketing
    • I HATE Facebook (and don’t get me started about Twitter)
    • Doubting my business skills and my energy and focus
    • Finding allies and helpers
  • My musical experiences
    • Peak moments
    • Reflections on the last workshop (what it was like; what I learned)
    • Sonic Sandbox at conferences
    • The original testing ground Sonic Sandbox “Band” experiences
    • Me and my trumpet
    • Improvisation in the wild (typewriter story)
    • Music, mental dysfunction, and recovery

What happens at a Sonic Sandbox Improvisational Music Workshop?

The Music Workshop Live!

It works!

I’m kind of high right now because the response to the first two workshops I gave was so enthusiastic. I’m so excited right now, that I did a bunch of research and correspondence in the last few hours. I really, really don’t like passive engagement, just interacting with a screen and my imaginary ideas about the people I’m writing to. I’ve done too much of that in my life and it leads me far away from the kind of human connection I really want.

Leaving these workshops, I’m feeling so open, I can talk to anyone. After each one, I had a pretty intense conversation with people on the street! Yesterday, right after I crossed the street from a support center on Germantown Ave, I looked into the eyes of a man, something I would ordinarily never do. He looked so interesting, though, that I felt like I knew him, and weirdly, he thought he knew me, as well. Maybe it’s that we were both feeling open to the world at the time.

He was about my height. Skin the color of light chocolate. A big, almost Muslim beard, but a bit bushier. His brown eyes were intense, and he engaged my gaze directly, but without threat, nor urgency. He was present. He had that aura of a street person, but his clothes were clean, and he didn’t ask for money — not right away, anyway.

“Don’t I know you?” He asked.

“I don’t think so.” It was a strange feeling, feeling like you know someone, but not recalling ever having seen them before.

“Do you drive a red Cadillac,” he asked?

“No. That must be someone else. You’re the second person today who thought he knew me. I just gave a music workshop across the street,” I pointed down the street to the entrance to The Wedge.

“I did an improvisational music workshop,” I said. Then, volunteering, “It’s for people with…” I jabbed my finger towards my head. “I have bipolar disorder.”

“I have bipolar disorder, too. I’ve got a lot of problems. I need some help — finding some place to live. Could you help me out?”

Oh the struggle in my head. I dearly wanted this to be one of those cool encounters where you just meet a kind of kindred spirit. Giving him money would make me feel like I was paying him to talk to me. I fished out my wallet, anyway, and gave him a dollar.

“The music helps with the depression and the self-hatred. It’s like a mini-vacation from all the crap that goes on in my head.”

“I play the guitar.”

“Do you know about the center across the street?”

“No.”

They have a lot of services there. They help you get a place to live. They get you medical care. They’ve got a bunch of things for people to do. Like the music thing I’m doing.”

We talked a little bit more, and then said goodbye with a handshake and a little “bro” hug.

Today, the workshop at another location of the support center was a lot more energetic. I tell my story about how this workshop came to be, and then I enter into the first exercise, which is a short meditation designed to ease people’s fear of what others might think of the sounds they make. Even before I asked people to start making sounds, some of the people were. It made me relax, because I knew I wouldn’t have to do much coaxing.

A lot of people were making a low, guttural sound, like an idling motor boat. It felt like it was coming from deep inside, without any filters. There were a few self-conscious laughs here and there, but there were just as many people who were already lost in the sound.

The next exercise generated most of the high. It’s the name game, where we each take a turn singing our names together with a movement. Later on, I recall the movement and I can recall people’s names. Normally, I would forget their names right away — maybe even before they said them.

The person on my right was a staff person. Maybe a ringer, but she was so genuinely enthusiastic about this exercise that she was free in making up her song and movement, as well as improvising later on when we repeated her name. The group developed a rhythm and even the reluctant people were encouraged to step up and after that, everyone was on board. I got back so much energy from their enthusiasm that I’m still buzzing hours later.

Out on the sidewalk after the workshop, I struck up a conversation with one of the people from the workshop. He ended up telling me about how tough his life had been. How dangerous it was; how many people had died; how he’d spent time in jail; in the shoe, and so on.

It was like the music totally opened him up. He started telling me about his brother.

“He was in the hospital with a stroke. When I went to pick him up, I had to carry him to the car. His legs were paralyzed.” He was choking up as he remembered this scene, and as he struggled to hold back his tears, he turned away from me a little. I stood there, letting him be. Remembering my therapist telling me to feel my feelings. You feel them, and they start to dissipate. They’re no longer something you run away from and do all kinds of stuff to keep from feeling them.

“Will you be coming back?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Those people,” he said, pointing back inside, “They don’t get it. They hear what I’m telling you and they’ll use it against me.”

I think he was expecting me to judge him for the things he’d done. I just wanted him to be able to tell his story, and I’m a little bit amazed at how powerful music can be to help people have fun and open up the things they’ve kept hidden, if they feel safe enough to do so. I respect that as a sacred trust. I’m not going to name names or share too many details about what happens. Just enough to give an idea of how powerful this work can be.

I am gaining confidence about it. I’m a bit in awe. I know that people are lonely and isolated and desperately want to be their true selves and share the real stuff with others. I know that because I know how isolated I’ve been. I know where that has led me.

By sharing that with others, and by teaching them a way to create the safety they need, perhaps this can help them heal. At the least, it can help them cope, as it has helped me. I can’t guarantee that anyone will be safe. But I hope that I can teach folks methods to create that safety for themselves. Perhaps they will learn how to build trust with each other.

 

West Philly Porchfest

Thirty years ago, give or take a month, I arrived in West Philly to look for a place to rent. I looked at a place on Windsor avenue, across the street from where I live, now. I had just graduated with a degree in Labor Relations, and I was moving to Philly because my girlfriend was going to Grad school at Penn. I was looking for work with a union.

One of the things that I thought would help in locating a good place to live was to interview people living on the street about what it was like. The person I interviewed is now my next door neighbor, and her husband was working for a union. What more did I need to know about the block?

That decision changed my life forever (not that every decision you make doesn’t change your life in the same way). It led to me finding a cool place to dance, which led to meeting my wife, which led to more dancing, which led to music returning to my life when a car accident made it impossible to dance. Which led to…. And led to…. And so on.

When we moved into this house after we married, 48th Street was the edge of the gentrified area. Now, I have no idea how far it extends, but it’s a lot further out. 50th? 52nd? When we moved in, it was a pretty quiet area that focused on each block, in terms of most community activities.

In those days, the neighborhood was not only seen as edgy, but also not very cool. It might still be edgy in a different kind of way, but now, as my daughter said on returning from college last week, “The neighborhood is a lot cooler now than it was when I left.”

This was even before Porchfest. How cool are we now?

The band that eventually became Sonic Sandbox started a little over a year ago, when I started jamming with a few friends. When we started, the others weren’t sure what they wanted to do, but I had an idea about how we could improvise together, which is what I wanted to do because playing music that other people know makes me feel judged, and feeling judged makes me not want to play.

I don’t want to be compared to anyone, because I’m convinced I won’t compare well, and I’ve used that feeling to hurt myself a lot in the past. Instead, I wanted to get together to improvise because when you improvise, nobody can tell you that you didn’t do it the way it was supposed to be.

I had a few musical games in mind that we could use to start us improvising, and we started using them to jam together. We tried doing other people’s songs once or twice, but we kept going back to the improvisation, especially as the others came to understand the process better.

Playing at Porchfest was perfect for us, because they just wanted people to make music. They didn’t care about your experience. No one was getting paid. We were all on our own to make things go. But is was a community thing. Strength in numbers. The intangible feeling of support you get knowing that everyone knows this is happening and a lot of other people are out there playing or listening. It’s such a West Philly thing for me.

One of the things I like to do sometimes when we improvise, is to sing a story that I make up as I go along. I just picture some events from my life in my head, and do a musical play by play as the internal movie plays in my imagination. I sang the story that I am now writing.

In the end, I started talking about what I find so cool about West Philly. Porchfest is a perfect example of that kind of thing. It’s all about people not judging each other. It’s about setting up community, connecting to others and not judging. Not criticizing. There’s an awful lot of creativity in this community, and that’s no accident. Creative people locate here because it’s a safe place to play, to express ourselves and to live the way we want to without others judging us. I’m not saying there are no limits, but the limits are a lot more flexible here than in many other communities. West Philly is an oasis for many people who get stigmatized and judged for being who they are in a lot of other places.

I told myself that playing on our porch was just like any other time we get together to jam. We’re just playing, and we’re doing it so we can get out of our minds and into that place where we become part of something larger than ourselves. It doesn’t matter if others like it or don’t. We’re doing it for fun.

Of course, having support does make a difference. So when an audience started filling the chairs I had put out, it gave us a lift. It’s nice to be able to play for others as well as ourselves, and we knew people were there by choice. They could get up and leave any time they wanted, but they could also stay, and stay they did.

I think we were all grateful for the people who listened to us having fun playing together. They were fellow players in the sonic sandbox, and some of them even joined us. We take inspiration from any place we can, and once we started like a pack of dogs, because my neighbor’s dog was barking. Listen hear:  It may have started in an unusual way, but what it turned into had a lot of energy, and that’s true for most of what we do.

I think it helps to understand our process when you listen to us. It’s not just about pretty sounds. It’s about accepting sounds. When we accept the sounds we hear, no matter how we might judge them if we were in judgement mode, we can take them to places we’d never go otherwise. That means we have to ask an audience to give us a chance. Don’t give up in the first couple of minutes. It might take us a while, but we will find some place cool, musically speaking, to go. It’s just that we have to wander around in trackless spaces for a while before we can agree on what path to follow. I have fond hopes that people will enjoy listening to us wander, and then be amazed at the incredible scenery we find when we agree on a trail to follow.

Whether or not people listen to us that way, we can still have fun wandering around together and creating a path through the places we’re exploring. We can do that, and we can lead others in doing that through our workshops, and others can watch and listen to us doing that in our performances. What’s important is that we do it. It’s a spiritual practice for us, and as long as we do it, we’re better off, and if we can share it with others, either as participants or as audience, there’s a chance that others will be better off, too. That’s my hope.

How I will use this Blog

From time to time, I will post my thoughts about playing in the Sonic Sandbox. The charter membership is made up of three or four of us. We all met in the “recovery rooms,” which is jargon for the rooms where people meet at twelve step meetings. Because we met that way, we may or may not actually know each other’s names. The key to twelve step recovery is anonymity. Most of us only feel safe enough to talk about what is really going on inside when we have some measure of protection about our deepest shames becoming public knowledge.

For that reason, I only know the first names of the people I play with in the Sonic Sandbox. I will also not be able to provide any more details about what kind of twelve step group it is, nor what troubles we are dealing with that brought us together. I hope that won’t matter. What is important is that playing in the Sonic Sandbox has become a part of our recoveries. It is a coping technique that helps us learn to change our habits from ones that are destructive to both us and the people we love to ones that, we hope, will be a lot healthier.

The idea of making music together, I believe, was first discussed by Bob and Kurt. Bob plays electric violin and Kurt plays electric guitar. Bob also told me that Kurt was a singer. When I heard they were going to do some music together, I decided that I wanted to crash that party. I wanted to play with other people, because I had stopped playing for over a year, as a punishment to myself for harming people I loved. This was an opportunity to get together in a way that wouldn’t contribute to my problems. In the past, music had opened the door for me to get into trouble.

I knew I needed music because of what it does to my brain. I helps me access my sense of connection to others. As such, it directly counteracts the feeling of loneliness and isolation I was living in. It gave me respite from despair and hopelessness. It provided a few moments of relief from what felt like a black hole in the pit of my stomach, that was slowing down light as well as weighing me down. My life, for a time, felt slow and miserable and impossible — except for those moments when I was connected to others, primarily through music.

Then, I decided I was such a bad person, that I didn’t even deserve any relief at all. I stopped playing music. I stopped dancing. I stopped socializing. I stopped talking to friends and family members. I stopped working. I stopped using the phone. I simply couldn’t.

Finding people I felt safe to be with and to make music with was a miracle for me. It started at my house. Kurt and Bob and Ralph started coming over on Tuesday evenings to play together. Not all of them every single time. Sometimes it was only two of us.

I used my background in improvisational music to come up with games that would help us develop a practice. At first, we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We thought about writing music or songs. We thought about being a rock band. We’re still open to any ideas that anyone wants to bring to our practice, but mostly we started playing together using these improvisational games I either borrowed from others I have learned from, or that I made up myself.

I started recording our sessions, and then listening to the recordings, and after a while, I started thinking that maybe we had something that other people would enjoy. Maybe we were developing a process that could help others gain the benefits we were gaining. Maybe we could play for others and with others in more public situations.

To date, we’ve played for others in a formal way three times. We’ve given the workshop once in a formal setting (a twelve step group retreat). We enjoyed ourselves on each occasion, and we also got some positive feedback, which felt good. The workshop went over very well, and our last performance generated an amazing amount of energy. It got a group to get up out of their audience roles, and some played music with us, while others danced. It was a regular party!

I am beginning to see a future for this play for us. We can do the workshop at parties, or for people interested in learning how to make music together (no experience required). The workshop is also good for people in recovery, both from addictions and from mental illnesses. It provides a coping technique that gives people relief from the pain these things can bring.

Performing also brings people together, both as audience members and participants. It provides another way to connect with others, and, I hope, it helps to break down judgmental barriers that often come between us. It is great fun for us to be the spark plugs that generate the energy of connection within groups of people we do not yet know.

So, from time to time, I will post my descriptions and reactions to these events — our practices and our outreach to others. This may primarily be my thoughts, but I hope that other members of Sonic Sandbox will also want to post their thoughts, too. Until next time… I hope we can play in the sonic sandbox together one day soon.

Roots of the Sonic Sandbox

The Sonic Sandbox has roots extending to many sources of inspiration. Some roots grow out of the improvisational music and dance community. Other roots reach into spiritual traditions meditation, yoga, and mindfulness, as well as into the support group and recovery movement.

Dance Improvisation

In 1986, I moved to an apartment in West Philadelphia with my then girlfriend. We were invited to a party by our upstairs neighbors — mostly, I think, out of self defense. They wanted to avoid us complaining about the loud music. It worked.

I liked the party, although my girlfriend didn’t seem to enjoy them so much. I think she made an appearance and then went back downstairs to study. I stayed, up in the attic where the party was being held, to witness a form of dance that was both new to me, but it felt like I’d known it for a long time. I asked the party-goers where they learned to dance like that.

The Friday Night Workshop at Group Motion,” I was told.

friday  night workshopI started going to the workshop, almost religiously. I met my wife there. I took the workshop facilitator training in Bermuda. I danced. I played music. I learned about rituals, tribes, and getting out of your head and into your body. Eventually, I figured out that this was my form of meditation, and later on, when I got sick, dancing at Group Motion was the only relief I got from my despair and hopelessness.

Music Improvisation

One of the dancers at Group Motion introduced me to his passions: drumming and a special form of music improvisation that he learned from the cell

huang1

David Darling and Chungliang Al Huang

o player, David Darling at Music for People workshops. Ron Kravitz, creator of Music in the Moment, introduced me to Baba
tunde Olatungi’s
drumming style as well as Music for People. I had the privilege of studying with Olatunji himself, at a weekend workshop in Philadelphia. I also worked with David Darling together with Taiji master improviser, Chungliang Al Huang at a workshop at Esalen Institute.
I played music. I improvised. I danced Taiji to the shapes of the giant pines and played my recorder to the sounds of the birds and the ocean at Big Sur.

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I learned about the hero’s journey and story telling and five minutes before the group performance on the last night, David Darling told me he wanted me to do a solo.

Support Groups

In 2008, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I started attending both a bipolar support group to learn how to manage depression and a twelve step group to learn how to cope with compulsive behavior. I learned about the power of listening to other people’s stories. I learned how rules can create a safe environment for people to tell their deepest shames openly in an effort to learn how to stop punishing themselves for the imagined and real hurts they have inflicted on others and themselves. I learned that giving back is a very good way to help heal myself.

The Warp and Weft of Root Weaving

Many roots. Many influences. Coming together to inform my life and my true work. It’s all a mass of knotted roots, now. I doubt if I could ever unentangle it, even if I wanted to. There’s much more, of course. Stuff from my family and my childhood. My struggle to feel lovable and loved. My efforts to punish myself for all the hurts I caused others.

These are also my spiritual roots. For me, spirituality is about feeling connections between me and others and our environment in a way that feels as if there is no separation. The magical paradox of being a separate being while being a part of everything. I am weaving all these things together; mostly making it up as I go along; and trying to pass on the things I have learned so they can help themselves recover from whatever it is that haunts them, and to find more joy and fun and love in their lives.